I want something that has me engrossed straight from "In the beginning"
January 4, 2011 2:08 AM   Subscribe

Recommend me a translation of the Bible (New Testament would be nice but optional) that's an engrossing read — if such a thing exists. I want a translation/interpretation that places emphasis on the story being told.

I want to read through the Bible, and I'd like a compelling translation of it. Not necessarily the most poetic translation, mind you; I want one that'll hook me and make me want to read from start to finish. I can delve into the poetry later.

My problem with books is that I find it hard to convince myself to start them, but once I get hooked I'll read straight through to the end. Most translations of the Bible I've read are pleasant enough to read, but not particularly gripping. They don't make me want to read straight to the end. I want one that'll get me just like any damn good yarn ought to.

I don't know if this necessarily exists, mind you. I just sort of suspect that it might, and I hope that somebody can help me look for it.
posted by Rory Marinich to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried The Message version? When I want to read the bible (as opposed to studying it, dissecting it, analyzing it... because I wouldn't necessarily count on it's theological accuracy), that's always my go-to version.
posted by hasna at 2:12 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd recommened the Oxford. Really great notes, introductory articles, maps, discussions of everything from linguistic challenges in translation to historical essays for context.

But your question throws me off. "Story being told"? The majority of the Bible (and the Hebrew Testament in particular) is a work of history (or if you prefer, chronicles). There are stories there obviously but I think you're making a mistake if you approach reading the Hebrew and Christian Testaments as coherent narratives. The books that make up both works were written by different people (usually, multiple persons) at very different times and under very differrent circumstances. Leviticus is (famously) a list of Hebrew laws ranging from sexual conduct to personal hygiene to diet, and not at all a story. Some books are poems and some are letters, and approaching them with a focus on narrative unity doesn't do them any justice.

The Oxford is great because it provides enough commentary and history to really understand where each book is coming from. YMMV, but I'd much rather have "all the facts" than sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of readability. Some versions out there are truly insipid if not downright false in their presentation of the material.

And in my entirely subjective opinion, the Oxford is highly readable. You can dip into the commentary as deeply or as lightly as you wish, but you're getting a version which has been vetted by some of the best minds and scholars in the world, literally.
posted by bardic at 2:27 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Try the Jefferson Bible. It is just focused on the story of Jesus as told in the gospels. Jefferson did an old fashioned cut and paste job on a couple of bibles to create a document that can be read as a story.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 3:10 AM on January 4, 2011

I would suggest a children's bible. Although I was brought up agnostic I did have a children's bible and I loved it to death. It was a selection of stories told in a more accessible prose and without a lot of the dry stuff, and made it all the more exciting. It was illustrated, too, and I still remember the illustrations of people pulling down trees and men with scars on their backs as they pulled heavy stones in Egypt. It wasn't all that much dumbed down, either.

That particular one was the http://www.amazon.com/Lion-Childrens-Bible-Pat-Alexander/dp/0745949126
>Lion Children's Bible
(wow, I remember that much!) although the cover appears to have changed. A children's Bible storybook.

Some info from Sunday School Kids website about differences between children's bibles and storybooks and some recommendations.

If there's a Christian bookstore anywhere near you, that might be your best bet--pop in and see the children's section. They might even have something geared towards the adolescent, considering there are a lot of churches which are going the "hip" route to introduce Christianity to youth, if the big signs and church names are anything to go by.
posted by owlrigh at 4:38 AM on January 4, 2011

Er, sorry about the broken HTML. My bad. Also, I nearly forgot: bible comics! They exist! They're pretty good, too, if a little simplistic and naive when you're used to something more meaty.
posted by owlrigh at 4:42 AM on January 4, 2011

If you take the Jefferson Bible route do keep in mind that the original purpose of it was to remove all of the supernatural elements; it leaves out the angels and the ressurecty bits and the like. The children's Bibles also seem likely to leave out or change a lot of the more gruesome parts, which happens in a lot of translations as well and can really color the way the characters come across.

You might want to focus on specific stories if you're looking to get hooked. I doubt there's anything that's going to make a lot of the laws read in a way that "hook" you. There's plenty of good Biblical historical fiction out there if you find any particularly compelling and want to hear different versions of them.
posted by NoraReed at 5:18 AM on January 4, 2011

I don't think such a thing exists, although I agree that Eugene Peterson's The Message will probably get you closest. The Bible isn't really intended to be read cover-to-cover-- it's sixty-six books smashed together by some council of Bishops who were more interested in theology than storytelling, and so you end up with books that are fairly tedious accounts of long speeches from God on what the Hebrews aren't allowed to do so as to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, a book that ends in the middle of a sentence (2 Chronicles-- really!), long genealogies, and the Psalms, which is great poetry but not so much with the narrative. Parts of history are repeated two or three or four times, and then long stretches with important stuff happening are omitted completely (Where the fuck did all these Romans come from?).

I think that, whichever translation or paraphrase you end up with, you'll find yourself either skipping around or otherwise giving up fairly quickly on your front-to-back scheme. However, inasmuch as it may assist you, here's a chronological reading plan for the narrative portions of the Bible.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:19 AM on January 4, 2011

The hardest part about reading the Bible cover-to-cover is that there's a big section in the Old Testament that is nothing but genealogies and obscure laws. Page after page after page of lists of names and rules for when you should wash or who should be stoned for doing what. It is dull and boring unless you are a Talmudic scholar.

This isn't something that can be fixed with a translation. Many people who decide to undertake a cover-to-cover reading of the Bible just get stopped there. That's a shame, because there's lots of good stuff that comes later. (Along with additional obscure, not-very-exciting stuff like the minor prophets.)

I'd encourage you to give yourself the freedom to just skip the parts you don't like. It's better than giving up all together.

As for your direct question: my personal favorite is The New International Version. It uses modern language that is very clear but retains some of the classical feel of the King James.

Have fun!
posted by alms at 6:30 AM on January 4, 2011

I find The Message unbearably vulgar.

The Good News translation - originally developed for ESL-ers - is a beautifully direct and clear thought-for-thought translation, accompanied by equally simple and evocative line drawings.

As a bonus, it identifies the beginning and end of particular stories. You'll do yourself a big favor by starting with those rather than trying to read cover-to-cover.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:04 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should add: The Oxford is genuinely awesome. But it's costly. And it strives for more literalism in its translation.

For engrossing reads, you'll want to stick with the "paraphrase" end of the spectrum shown here.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:15 AM on January 4, 2011

I would recommend The Message. You can read as much of it as you want, for free, at BibleGateway.com (along with a whole host of other translations).

You may also want to consider some non-traditional reading plans (i.e., not reading straight through from Genesis to Revelation). There are all sorts of plans -- some are more chronologically based, some give you a chunk of Old Testament/Psalms/New Testament for each day, some group passages together that share a common theme, etc. This site has a few ideas, but you can find many more by googling "Bible Reading Plan".
posted by BurntHombre at 7:25 AM on January 4, 2011

Not really a Bible, but Walter Wangerin's The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel sounds like it might work for you. You'll get the big plotlines and the major characters. You can always have a real Bible beside you if you want to see how something was portrayed in the scriptures themselves.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:57 AM on January 4, 2011

Although it's not the Bible as such, I would really recommend The Book of God by Walter Wagnerin. It's a novel-ised version of the Bible, with emphasis on plot, character development and description. It's a great read. It actually starts more like a movie - jumping right into the middle of the story, then going back to the start to set the scene.
It doesn't claim to be a Bible, and you can't use normal references (like just flipping to John 3:16). But I think it's a really enjoyable way to get to grips with the Bible.
posted by sleepy boy at 7:58 AM on January 4, 2011

I highly recommend against The Message and Good News and the NIV, and give a hard second to the Oxford. I've read a few translations of the Bible pretty much through, and the Oxford is by far my favorite. I mean, part of reading the Bible, if you really wanna read it, is slogging through a lot of pedantic stuff, interspersed with stories and poetry. And that's part of what makes it interesting. I think the archaic history stuff is really the meat that makes the Bible an interesting read, the details and the Oxford notes that help explain everything.

Plus, the Oxford at least tries to be objective and give you an actual translation. I think, especially with translations like the NIV, which is generally the translation of choice for many in the evangelical movement, are really agenda-laden, and leave me with a sour taste in my brain. Ymmv.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:36 AM on January 4, 2011

This evaluation of popular translations seems like a pretty fair rundown to me. When I was a kid (70s), The Living Bible was what people used for an easy-read Bible. It was controversial, though, as it paraphrased so much that a lot of he writer's opinion ended up included in the text.

The site linked above includes this note:
"The Good News Bible [aka Today's English Version] is written at a very low grade level and is consequently very easy to understand. It is excellent as story book. In fact, the Old Testament can be read from Genesis to 2 Kings as easily as a novel." Might be worth looking into for your purposes. (I've never looked at the GNB, so I'm not personally recommending it.)
posted by torticat at 9:40 AM on January 4, 2011

If you decide to evaluate translations for yourself, BibleGateway will let you look up the same verse(s) in all of the popular English translations of the Bible in print. For extra background on the OT, I've found Christine Hayes' Open Yale Course useful - they read the Oxford, because it's considered the scholar's choice. As Lutoslawski mentions, it has the additional advantage of being free of the preachy sidebars you're going to find in basically any other Bible.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:44 AM on January 4, 2011

For online bibles with lots of choices I use You Version.
posted by TuxHeDoh at 10:50 AM on January 4, 2011

If compelling story-telling is what's important, and if you're willing to just start with Genesis, you could always try R. Crumb's illustrated version.
posted by AngerBoy at 11:18 AM on January 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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